By Rodney Brown
The Federal Fair Housing Law prohibits housing discrimination based on a person’s civil rights, but what about when a person is poor?
As it currently stands, landlords in Rochester can refuse to rent to someone who receives financial assistance from the government.
Sixty-eight percent of tenants who depend on Section 8 are housed in the “crescent” areas (north of downtown), which are the poorest parts of the city.
And, a high percentage of landlords with properties in more stable parts of the city tend to automatically disqualify anyone with Section 8.
Due to this process, thousands of poor people have been compounded in neighborhoods which statistically represent the third highest areas of concentrated poverty in the nation.
“When you think about Section 8 vouchers, they basically were created to give families the opportunity to live in areas of high opportunity,” Adam McFadden, a Rochester City Council member, stated. “The vouchers are basically not doing what they’re supposed to do. If you open a renter’s guide today, it will say no Section 8, and no DSS. So, landlords are already making a determination about a person, without meeting them. They are discriminating based on the source, where the income comes from, and not the person. Now, that’s not to say I’m asking people to take in bad tenants, because you could do research on whether or not a person is a bad tenant, but, you should not eliminate folks based on where they get their income.”
“There’re some underlying factors in terms of when you look at who’s receiving the vouchers, and what people think about them,” McFadden continued. “It all comes down to race, and class. When more than 60 percent of our vouchers are being used in the crescent, we are subsidizing poverty, because you are placing people in neighborhoods where they don’t have the opportunity to get out of poverty. If you think about that, we are trapping people in neighborhoods that are dangerous, and in schools that are underperforming. So, we are subsidizing poverty.”
In November of last year, the Rochester Housing Authority (RHA) board fired its previous director, Alex Castro, then appointed McFadden as its interim director. As interim director, McFadden wrote a letter to Mayor Lovely Warren and Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks, urging the adoption of a local ordinance which would prohibit any disparate treatment of renters based on the renters’ source of income.
Recently, he has also gone further by submitting legislation which would amend the city’s municipal code regarding housing discrimination based on income, and provide victims the right to sue in state court. The legislation would also include the option to first seek mediation through the city’s grievance program, which is administered by the Center for Dispute Settlement.
According to the legislation, landlords and property managers would be prohibited from discriminating against an individual on the basis of his or her income, as well as from refusing to show, sell, or rent housing to an individual on the basis on his or her actual, or perceived, source of income.
The legislation would also prohibit the printing, or circulation, of any advertisement or publication containing exclusionary language, based on an individual’s potential source of income.
However, the legislation would not prohibit discrimination based on the amount of income an individual may earn. As a result, landlords would still have the opportunity to refuse leasing to an applicant who may have insufficient income relative to the property’s rental price.
Nonetheless, in response to McFadden’s proposal, the same landlords who rallied against his housing proposal during his short term as RHA’s interim director, have openly rejected his ordinance for a second time.
“I bought the property, I should be able to dictate who I rent the property to,” landlord Peter Burdick stated. “Someone’s rental property is comparable to someone’s personal home. If I don’t want someone living in my home, for whatever reason, I don’t have to. Why should rental property be different, if I own it?”
In addition, Robert Doherty, of Doherty Realty, said the company experienced problems where, outside tenants’ incomes from DSS and Section 8, the tenants had been unable to pay their bills.
“We think the person who used to run the RHA did a very good job,” Doherty stated. “We didn’t like the RHA’s leadership under McFadden. We try hard to treat all people fairly. However, if the law changes, we will adapt to it. As of now, we are doing nothing illegal.”
Yet, according to McFadden, the myth about Section 8 is, people think the recipients are slow payers, but they’re not.
“If you ask any landlord that deals in Section 8, they pay on time,” he stated. “I know. When I was there, when they get an invoice; they pay in the same week. The landlords that do it know that’s a consistent check.”
McFadden has also lobbied the state to appoint an additional judge for the housing court.
He believes an extra judge will speed up the process when an individual may be trying to get rid of a bad tenant, or trying to get on the court docket in a timely fashion.
And, although New York State does not currently have a statute, many states do prohibit source of income discrimination, as do certain municipalities in New York State, including Buffalo, Hamburg, Nassau County, New York City, and West Seneca.
“The state wrote the protections for New York City, but they didn’t include the other cities,” McFadden stated. “Why is it good for them, and not good for us?”
Currently, the RHA has awarded the maximum 9,000 vouchers, and more than 14,000 residents are on a waiting list, which has been closed since 2009.
McFadden’s act to amend the municipal code, with regard to housing discrimination, based on “source of income,” will go before the full city council in November.